Alcohol-related incidents prompt debate of party policy

While the overall number of alcohol-related visits to the Health Center appears to have dropped this year, members of the campus administration report dramatic rises in the percentage of serious visits.

This shift has prompted some concern on campus about changes in the social scene generated by last year’s revision of the party policy. Specifically, students and administrators have expressed mixed views concerning some unanticipated results of the new party policy.

The party scene at Williams underwent a significant transformation last year after Williamstown police officers broke up a party at Agard. The hosts of the party were arrested and in the weeks that followed, the police department filed complaints against Williams security officers for aiding persons under 21 to procure alchohol and illegally storing alchoholic beverages. Although the Northern Berkshire District Court ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to file charges, the police intervention did lead to a re-working of the entire Williams party policy. The new policy requires that all 21-year-old guests produce two forms of identification if they wish to drink and includes a system of sanctions for students caught drinking underage. Some people blame the increased seriousness of alchohol-related incidents on the new party policy.

Director of Health Services Ruth Harrison said there have been fewer alcohol-related visits this year, but the incidents have been significantly more serious than in previous years.

According to Harrison, last year 47 students stayed at the Health Center as a result of intoxication during the months of October and November, and this year the number has dropped to 36.

But Harrison added that it is difficult to compare the two years because last year classes began almost a week earlier in September than they did this year.

Harrison said the alcohol-related incidents have been more serious than in past years.

“The condition of the students who have been brought to the Health Center has been more serious than many of those of last year,” she said. “The two big cases we see are first-year students and students turning 21. We are seeing more cases involving hard alcohol. Why that is, I don’t know.”

Harrison added that homecoming weekend was “very quiet,” and no students became dangerously intoxicated.

Dean of the College Peter Murphy said he is concerned about the increase in serious alcohol related visits to the Health Center.

“We have seen a rash of really dangerous drinking — near death experiences — in recent weeks,” he said.

He also noted that while some of the intoxicated students have been first-years, many others have been upperclass student attending private 21st birthday parties.

Some students, he said, have come close to killing themselves.

“I personally know of two near-death experiences in the last three weeks,” he said. “They happened, quite simply, because people drank too much, too fast. Twenty-first birthday parties, which as I understand have developed a sort of ritual around them, are turning out to be a hazardous business. Actually, in talking with students about this issue, I have been surprised at the relatively low level of understanding of the actual hazards of heavy drinking. Or, perhaps, people know but don’t really care.”

“This kind of compulsive, purposefully self-destructive drinking may be more common now,” he added. “That is really scary, and I think it should be really scary to everyone, students and non-students alike.”

Murphy expressed mixed feelings concerning the impact of the new party policy on social life at Williams. “What I have heard is that there are now fewer big parties, which is good in some ways and bad in other ways,” he said. “I have also heard that access to parties is more limited, especially for first-year students. That too, it seems to me, is both bad and good.” He explained, “Anything that enforces the clearly true idea that big parties are not the only fun way to spend your time is a good thing. So reducing the focus on parties might have a beneficial aspect. At the same time, big parties are fun, especially if they are not the only thing going, and so restricted access will be frustrating for the people who can’t get in.”

Murphy said he thinks that in theory the new party policy is necessary, but he added that it is not a perfect solution.

“From a broad point of view, both moral and legal, paying more official attention to helping people obey what is, after all, the law, seems to me to be simply good,” he said. “We should do that. Along with many students, I also think that this is not the ideal way to deal with the serious issue of people who hurt themselves by drinking too much, but it is what we are given by the world.”

Students have also noticed changes in the drinking and social scenes at Williams.

Emily Christiansen ’99, who spent the last year studying abroad through the Williams-Oxford program, said she has noticed dramatic alterations in the composition and size of Williams parties.

“Coming back to campus has been a bit of a shock because the campus party scene is so different from my sophomore year,” she said. “Though most of the parties I’ve been to this year are small gatherings with mostly seniors, and though I was never a big fan of the ‘raging kegger at Perry’ type party, I do miss having all four classes equally included in the Williams social scene.

“One of the great things about being a freshman and sophomore here was being able to go to any party on campus regardless of age; it was such a nice way to meet and see upper-class friends.”

Ben Birney ’01 said he has noticed a decrease in the levels of public drinking this year.

“I haven’t been to a party yet this year which involved drinking,” he said. “I couldn’t say for sure, but the amount of blatant public (and by public I mean, in the halls of dorms) drinking seems to have decreased.”

Mariya Hodge ’00, a junior adviser in Fayerweather, said she has witnessed the effects of the new party policy on her first-year students. “The new party policy has definitely created some challenges for JAs in terms of finding a place for their frosh to go out, but what’s been even harder is the way that the house presidents have been dealing with their parties as a result of the policy,” Hodge said. “Especially at the beginning of the year there were an unusual number of invite-only parties, many of which never even opened up (the convention of the party opening at 11 was standard my freshman year).”

According to Hodge, “Many JAs have found themselves wandering from house to house on Saturday nights followed by a string of frosh looking for any place that will let them in. I’m sure the house presidents probably feel inclined to take the safer route and not admit freshmen at all, but it’s really frustrating to the frosh to arrive in this town and realize there’s absolutely nothing to do on a Saturday night . . . . The new party policy puts a lot of pressure on us because when frosh can’t get into parties they look to their JAs to give them something to do.”

However, Director of Security Jean Thorndike-Wilson said she was pleased with the party scene during Homecoming weekend this year. “The security officers felt the hosts and peer monitors were very responsible,” she said. “Security was very happy with the results of the parties this year.”

Thorndike-Wilson said there are many factors to be looked at concerning the increase in serious alcohol related visits to the Health Center. “It’s hard to say whether or not [hard alcohol consumption] ha
s increased,” she said. “It may be that people feel more confident to bring students to the Health Center.”

She explained that years ago there may have been just as much front-loading, but that people are more conscious today about drinking and its consequences. She added, “I see shades of more reasonable drinking. I thoroughly enjoy seeing non-alcohol related events.” She noted that the alcohol free events at Goodrich, Currier, and Greylock were well attended at Homecoming.

Thorndike-Wilson said she is pleased with how the new party policy has functioned so far this year. “I think the new party policy is a good attempt at compliance with Massachusetts State Law concerning alcohol. As with any new policy, we need the full cooperation of every individual to make it work. I think the students are making an attempt to comply with state law. I think everyone is trying to make the party policy work.”

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